Meeting with Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Young 
December 11, 2012

Present: 

  • C-PAC Co-Chairs: Melissa Bulyko, Fran Cronin, Zina Gomez-Liss
  • C-PAC Coordinator: Rosalie Rippey
  • C-PAC Members: Pamela Blau, Lisa Downing, Zekia Ali, Mollie Sherrie
  • CPS Administrators: Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Young, Interim Director of Special Education Jean Spera

Superintendent Young apologized for the lack of time for parent concerns at the last C-PAC meeting and expressed his hope that this meeting would provide context and voice to the concerns already expressed in writing by families. (See Questions below) The goal is to help him better understand priorities as CPS enters its FY2014 budget process.

The following captures the exchange between parents and Superintendent Young during our 90-minute meeting.

1. Parent: This is a big year in terms of change, so we may not know what’s most pressing as things are still developing. However, there is widespread concern about services at the Upper Schools.

Jeff Young: Yes, both staff and parents have expressed this to me. The six-day schedule has allowed us to include more in a student’s daily schedule, but it is clear we have to fix the problems that have resulted. One fix this is to lengthen the school day – this is front and center in our collective bargaining. Teachers also want a longer school day, but we have to work out the exact format, appropriate compensation, etc.

Jean Spera: OSE has reallocated more staff to the Upper Schools to try to help. There are now more special educators per student at the Upper Schools than at other schools, however, more changes still need to be made for next year.

2. Parent: Parents have been told that staff cannot help children with executive functioning issues at the end of the day, i.e. backpack checks.

Jean Spera: We are working on improving this. Organizational routines can be built into the classroom. It’s easier in K-5, but even there, if the Special Ed teacher doesn’t do the backpack checks, it doesn’t happen. This connects to the structural issue of inclusion — ‘who oversees the child’s education?’

In an elementary classroom, the classroom teacher is in charge. At the Upper Schools, it’s more complex as to who’s in charge and who’s the case manager.

  1. Parent: When a parent expresses concerns, the staff often responds defensively. Roles seem undefined when what’s really needed is joint ownership of a child’s education. Special Educators try to work cooperatively with General Educators, but the building administrator supervises General Ed while special education oversight is shared among several OSE administrators not located in the school.

Some schools manage this better than others, but it’s not a uniform practice. Why not?

Jeff Young: “They can and they should.” JY expressed that the culture of consistency and culture of inclusion are linked. The culture in Cambridge has been to prize a competitive marketplace approach with each school creating its own style or brand. Both teachers and families have valued this.

Example: A parent shared that a teacher has been refusing to charge an FM system a student needs as a hearing aid. Instead of charging the device for the student, the teacher has requested the child bring the system to the Special Educator’s office at the end of each day for overnight charging. The child then picks it up at the beginning of each day. The teacher refused to responsibility for the overnight charging.

  1. Parent:  Concern was raised about the lack of family liaisons at the Upper Schools and the sense that staff doesn’t really focus on the Upper School service-receiving students.

Some structures are in place but most students need support to access them. For example, there is before-school homework time at Vassal Lane and homework is posted to a website. However, if a student doesn’t use the service, they get a detention. The expectation is that a middle schooler should be independent and self-advocating. However, this is an unrealistic expectation when the skill set has not been previously taught or expected.

Middle school is not the time to cut back on organizational supports but to increase them, not just for students receiving services, but for all students.

Jeff Young: The district is working with Harvard School of Education Professor Karen Mapp to help envision the potential of the family liaison position. Family engagement is important to student achievement, and the vision is for liaisons to be activists in forging relationships between school and family so students are poised for achievement.

Rosalie said she was at the first Karen Mapp training with liaisons. Her take-away is that the Coordinator position for the PAC is a good example of supporting family engagement with children’s educational outcomes. Challenges exist but success is dependent on administrators welcoming this type of engagement.

In special education, this must also be welcomed by the team chairperson/district contact or school psychologist. Many special education challenges arise because the curriculum itself is not always designed with special education learning needs in mind.

Example: In one school, a literacy coach was teaching a lesson on genres and writing styles. However, despite some students’ needs, the coach was hesitant to discuss graphic organizers and equally uncomfortable discussing how to support learning to organize and produce effective writing.

Meetings with the teacher and special educator helped facilitate implementing the appropriate organizer for pull-outs and in the classroom.This was an example of parent engagement directly supporting student learning. It was also an example of the disconnect between special education and general education. EmPower might be used school-wide in some buildings (as in the King Open), others not. Somerville uses Wilson to teach all students writing fundamentals.

5. Parent: The search process for the new OSE position is very important because even though on paper the job description discusses collaboration between the Assistant Superintendent for Student Services and the curriculum and general education areas, it’s going to be crucial that someone is hired who can actually forge these connections.

Jeff Young: The title and role of Assistant Superintendent is important. Putting this position at this level is about getting a culture of inclusion on the table.

6. Parent: The merger of the Inclusion Specialist with the Special Educator position is not working.

Jeff Young: Stated that he, Jean Spera and Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk are all committed to revisiting this in the upcoming budge process.

Jean Spera: Administrators agree that this position merger has not been as successful as hoped. CPS is working on putting professional development into place for Special Educators and Inclusion Specialists who need to improve their skills in their new core areas of responsibility. OSE has also freed up 3 or 4 Inclusion Specialists to allow them to help principals and consult at schools where there are particularly challenging issues, such as students with a behavioral component to their disability. OSE acknowledged that 100% of what’s needed is not in place. Services are being provided but inclusion is not consistently happening.

Inclusion Aides can be written into IEPs but in some instances a paraprofessional has supported the Inclusion Specialist in the classroom during transitions or helped support the application of skills. However, paraprofessional support is not written into the IEP, only services provided by professional staff.

Jeff Young: Identifying the number of paraprofessional positions that are needed is complex. Often the choice is between hiring one highly certified special education teacher vs. one paraprofessional. These decisions have to be weighed carefully.

Jeff Young then asked parents to go around and articulate their top priority because when parents express what they feel is needed, most often it converges with what staff are also saying is needed.

Although only a handful of parents were present, hearing themes and stating priorities was felt important.

What parents said:

  1. Building-based “ownership” of kids’ education: this is both a cultural and structural issue in terms of quality of service delivery and overseeing communication and engagement with the family.
  2. Reducing the number of Aides and Inclusion specialists can detract from  inclusion.
  3. Innovation Agenda, Upper Schools, West Ed recommendations and the Assistant Superintendent search: an opportunity to create a culture shift and new vision.
  4. Data is important. Is there a process for collecting data on what is going well and whether staff are accurately assessing student needs. We hear, ‘everything is ok’ when we know it’s not. Some issues pertain to all the schools; others are school specific.
  5. Additional funds might should be spent hiring more inclusion aides and specialists. Providing executive functioning training to educators. Supporting study & organizational skills.
  6. We need building-based accountability and consistency across teams. A liaison for parents — a team-based ombudsperson — could provide consistent and basic information to all parents.
  7. West Ed identified pockets of excellence such as Special Start and co-teaching.  I hope co-teaching gets expanded, not reduced, especially at the Upper Schools.
  8. We need a Resource room at the high school as another component in our compliment of inclusion strategies.
  9. Hire Family Liaisons with experience and knowledge of special education.
  10. Summer needs to be a time to help children who are lagging to catch up. Jean Spera said at the school committee meeting, “Cambridge has been focused on compliance, and we need to focus on outcomes.”
  11. For various reasons, some children need tutoring beyond the school day. When I bring this up with my child’s team, I am told there is no help. Not knowing how to navigate the system is hard and that holds back some parents. I am told to keep pushing through, but how do I keep pushing when all I hear is “no.” It feels like there is no point. Is it ok to give tutoring to those that know how to navigate the system while others do not?  There needs to be equity for all families.

 

Parent Questions Submitted in Writing

  • CRLS promised increased supports for students on IEPs and 504 Plans without regard to whether (they are) honors- or CP- level classes. What supports are offered in honors classes?
  • The upper schools currently have a 6 day rotating schedule. How does this work for a child who has pull-out 4 times per week?
  • What specific things are being done by the district to narrow the achievement gap for special education students?
  • Does Cambridge see itself as finding a position in the nation as a leader in meeting the needs of special education students?
  • I appreciate the very great efforts of OSE staff to meet the needs of students on IEPS, whose needs vary so widely.  I have been concerned, however, about the approach followed in the Structured Behavior classrooms in Cambridge – employing point sheets and twice-daily opportunities to redeem points for rewards, the rewards consisting heavily of unhealthy food (twinkies, gummy bears, etc.)  This is terribly out-of-step with today’s focus on good nutrition and the growing attention to the serious health risks of childhood obesity.  Is there a plan to bring these behavior classrooms in line with Cambridge’s Healthy Schools Initiative?Further, the design of this program (as of the 2011-12 school year) was mis-aligned with the needs of children with disrupted attachment and trauma histories.  While the response to compliance was twice-daily rewards, the response to non-compliance was to ignore….  For many children with attachment and trauma issues, this reinforces dis-connection and alienation, when connection and safe trusting relationship is what is needed.
  • The proposed discipline code appears very punitive rather than supportive, and does not seem to consider the individual needs of the child including those with disabilities. how come a positive behavioral support model, or a collaborative problem solving model was not considered? Seems to me that the punitive model contributes to the widening achievement gap and could Cambridge approach Think:Kids at MGH or other experts to revamp the code to be more supportive?
  • Thank you for acknowledging that the jury is still out on the impact of merging the Inclusion Specialist and Special Educator positions; and the importance of inclusion aides, deployed effectively. I appreciate your willingness to acknowledge that inclusion is challenging and that CPS has a way to go in this area. As the Superintendent, it is important that you are aware that although both West Ed and notices from OSE have assured parents that services would not be disrupted by this merger, it appears to me that my own child’s special educator is extremely over-taxed trying to provide both in-classroom support and meet all of the IEP requirements for pull-out services. Parents like me have had to really push to get aide time that was being provided “off the books” documented in IEPs. As a result of aides not being documented or planned for in building budgets (perhaps not tied to IEPs but guaranteed as a resource) there are now no inclusion aides at two schools (Kennedy-Longfellow and King) and there is reduced aide time available at all schools. So my question is: can you (via OSE) guarantee that there is adequate staffing to provide all inclusion support documented in IEPs, as well as inclusion support that was undocumented but provided in the past, when needed and requested by teachers?
  • The stabilization of the substantially separate classrooms was a major step towards creating cultures of inclusion, requiring buildings to “own” ALL of the special education students within their buildings. However, with that same goal in mind, it is confusing to witness the staffing pattern adopted for this year. For instance, how can a Physical Therapist who is assigned to four different schools possibly consult with the PE teachers at all of those schools and still fit in PT sessions with the students within each school on her caseload, not to mention complete her progress reporting and documentation? Why do the Upper Schools have multiple part-time specialists instead of one specialist in each discipline who can be more fully integrated and collaborative with the teaching staff?
  • Your decision to include four parents on the hiring committee for the Assistant Superintendent position makes a strong statement that you value parent perspectives on Special Education. However, based on the proposed timeline, it will be a year before the new person is in place, and it is unlikely they will be involved in this year’s budgeting and staffing decisions. Does this mean that it will be two years before major changes to inclusion supports (including resource rooms and professional development for general education teachers) and fragmented staffing patterns can be addressed? What can you do in the meantime for our children, who are at risk of learning loss and behavioral responses to school-based frustration within academic programs that do not seem to be designed with their needs in mind?

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